How modern graffiti emerged in Los Angeles
This issue of Letters is part of a series on graffiti. The introduction is here.
Mid-century Los Angeles presented a bright, shiny face to the world: a broad city, the home of Hollywood stars, reaching along endless freeways, bound only by beaches and mountains. At the furthest edge of America, LA was the escape from everything old, the centre of everything new.
This image belied a complicated reality. New as it was, LA was a city of deep cultural roots, waves of transplants, wild-west lawlessness, and all the conflict the above entailed. The invisible corners of the endless metropolis hid a parallel society where empires rose and fell—each leaving its mark in letters on the walls.
These letters bore no legal authority. But they were still official. To express their official function, they copped a style from another non-legal authority: the overseer and keeper of all things LA—the Los Angeles Times.
Since 1881, the Los Angeles Times had committed its city’s new to letters. And above them all stood the Los Angeles Times logo—constant, steady, daily, printed in an open and angular Blackletter.
In 1943, the Nazis had already disavowed Blackletter in its homeland. But that year, while America was still at war with Germany and Japan, Angelinos went to war on their own.
Los Angeles: the foundation
Los Angeles was founded by the Spanish colonial government of California in 1781. 40 years later, California became Mexican territory as American colonies gained their independence from Spain. By the time California joined the United States at the conclusion of the Mexican-American war in 1848, Los Angeles’s population had spent generations developing a Mexican culture from Spanish and indigenous-American elements, and building and refining their attendant institutions.
The waves of settlers who moved to Los Angeles subsequent to its joining the United States established new institutions under the legal framework of the United States. But these institutions didn’t always dismantle and replace existing institutions—or even extend to Los Angeles’s original communities. This was the American west—there was space for both sets of institutions to co-exist side-by-side.
Until there wasn’t. Then, there was conflict.
Once the movie business caught on, the Los Angeles basin filled up fast. With settler communities increasing contact with Mexican communities, each community’s insulated institutions were incapable of preventing and resolving routine inter-community conflicts—conflicts that each set of institutions dealt with adequately within their own communities. This left Angelinos with two options: reconciliation, or escalated conflict.
The Great Depression provided a pretext for escalation. Facing serious economic troubles and believing incorrectly that eliminating population would help, the US deported 2 million people of Mexican background—including over a million American citizens. The message to Los Angeles’s Mexican community was clear: US institutions were not working in their interests. They were on their own.
Pachuco placas - early 20th century graffiti
The wild expanses of Los Angeles were the perfect training ground for informal institutions. In the places beyond the control of Anglo-American institutions, Mexican-American locals took charge. Speaking an argot called Caló, they called themselves pachucos or pachucas, and they took up the institutional mantels of their districts. Using axle grease, they marked the extent of their control with official lettering—written signs called placas.
Pachucos also adopted their own sartorial style, inspired by young black Americans. The zoot suit was attention grabbing by design, with oversized jackets, cuffed and creased trousers, and loud colours—its wearer made a statement.
In June 1943, zoot suits became a lightning rod for violence. Over six days, hundreds of US sailors roamed Los Angeles, beating and stripping anyone wearing a zoot suit. These attacks initially targeted pachucos, but soon targeted black and Filipino Angelinos as well. The police followed the attackers, arresting their victims.
Los Angeles had institutionalized segregated institutions. You could live under the umbrella of the city’s institutions, or you were forced to make your own.
How informal institutions become gangs or governments - and why letters matter either way
The informal institutions that filled this institutional vacuum were inherently territorial. Seymour Paints’ spray cans made marking that territory easier than ever. A system of Caló abbreviations expressing aggression or peace became the graffiti lingua franca, letting rivals know where they stood and whether they should leave. They even developed their own official lettering: sharp Blackletters inspired by LA’s official scribes: the Los Angeles Times. The LA Times, in turn, marched in lockstep with LA’s other formal institutions as they criminalized the informal—LA’s informal institutions, necessary as they were in the forgotten reaches of the sprawling city, formally became gangs.
To follow history in the order it happened, we have strip away the image of modern developments, lest they misinform us about their precursors. For example, it’s inaccurate to picture bronze-age warriors carrying machine guns. Likewise, it’s inaccurate to picture ancient institutions with the complexity, stability, and formality of a modern state. Without the image of modern institutions occluding our vision, we see the origins of all institutions in informality.
The Romans marked their empire with Square Capital inscriptions and the Latin language. LA’s gangs marked their territory with Blackletter spray paint and Caló abbreviations. It’s worth thinking on the parallels. Roman inscriptions were more like gang tags from the heaviest clique in antiquity than London Underground signage. At the same time, all of the above provide guidance. Is there even a clear difference between a gang and a government? Or are they similar institutions at different points on a formality spectrum?
Graffiti lays these questions at our feet. In our first articles on ancient- and early-20th-century graffiti, we looked at the difference a pre-modern context makes in how people used graffiti and how we view it now. In the context of developed, capitalist societies, we count on institutional protection for private property—graffiti violates those protections and is, therefore, vandalism. But before there were institutions to define and protect private property, we wrote on walls by default.
An official membership card issued by Teen Angel's Magazine, keystone media in LA's Chicano culture. Note the Teen Angel tag on the bottom right
Just like the distant past falls outside of our present institutions’ ability to enforce values, areas abandoned and neglected by our present institutions fall outside of their ability to enforce values. The flux between anarchy and legality emerges as a process that fills a void, holds its boundaries, and invents law.
Consider this: in 1970s Los Angeles, placa writers called the badge on the side of police cars the LAPD’s placa. Two instances of the same thing; different points on the formality spectrum.
The Chicano movement and Los Angeles graffiti
In the 1970s, the Chicano cultural movement emerged in the south-west US, representing the unique culture of pachuco heritage. The Chicano movement took graffiti beyond gang markings, celebrating the artistry behind writers’ hands, showcasing the style in their script and images.
The diverse origins of Chicano culture are clear in this graffiti. Behind it all lies a respect for penmanship—something passed down from the Catholic Church’s monastic scribe tradition, through Spanish colonization via Juan de Zumárraga to indigenous Americans, and kept alive in Catholic schools. Chicano writing style is script writing. Spray paint can replaced quills and pens; walls can replace velum and paper, but writing is writing.
Chaz Bojórquez may be the most famous Chicano writer. His calligraphic style, combined with his iconic skull/Zig-Zag man imagery stood out on Los Angeles walls, became signs of good luck for Los Angeles gangsters, became iconic Chicano art, and launched Bojórquez’s successful art career.
Chaz Bojórquez pictured in front of his writing and trademark Zig-Zag skull
Pachucos and Chicano writers made Los Angeles the first city to host a modern graffiti culture, which has since attracted deep scholarship*. But while Los Angeles was first, it wasn’t the only origin of modern graffiti in America. On the opposite side of the country, writers were wielding spray cans, making themselves local stars, and creating a culture that would both eclipse and compliment LA’s.
Next issue, we talk about Cornbread.
Download graffiti-inspired fonts from BLKBK Type
*To learn more about graffiti in this era, we recommend two books by Susan A. Phillips: Wallbangin’, and The City Beneath.